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Right Before

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By William-Black   |   
© 2013 - 2020 William-Black
The Artwork:

Full Resolution Digital Print: $8.00
Orders can be placed at wblackarts@gmail.com
See my profile page for details.

Concept Mars Settlement nuclear pulse propulsion spacecraft designed for my Orion's Arm future history setting.

Image featured: on Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets site, Project Orion page, under William Black's 3D Orions.

Artwork featured in Issue 34 of 3D Art Direct
Magazine Link here

In the image: two Orion nuclear pulse propulsion spacecraft. The foreground vehicle in final phase of assembly and partially lowered into its construction shaft, the more distant vehicle is an example of the completed spacecraft. These spacecraft are a near equivalent to Freeman Dyson's Super Orion's, designed to be narrow and long rather than the short wide body version of the early General Atomic Orion. The fully assembled vehicle is 328' diameter and 600' high with a launch weight of fifty thousand tons.

A note about the setting and Project Orion

My Orion’s Arm setting [unrelated to the Orion's Arm collaborative Universe community] is Hard SF – so my designs are grounded in the science and physics of real-world spacecraft, existing or proposed. When you are talking about sending hundreds of tons, or even thousands of tons of payload per vehicle flight, to Mars, then there is only one real solution, nuclear pulse propulsion, also known as Project Orion – because atomic bombs contain thousands of times more energy, indeed millions of times more energy, than any of the chemical fuels used in existing rockets. Launch vehicles in this image are based on the designs of Project Orion, the advanced propulsion study initiated at General Atomics in 1958 under auspices of the U.S. Air Force Special Weapons Center, and Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory.

Orion Nuclear Pulse Propulsion, in brief

Orion reacts small directional nuclear explosives against a large steel pusher plate attached to the spacecraft with shock absorbers. Efficient directional explosives maximize the momentum transfer, leading to specific impulses in the range of 6,000 seconds, or about thirteen times that of the Space Shuttle Main Engine. With refinements a theoretical maximum of 100,000 seconds (1 MN•s/kg) might be possible. Thrusts were in the millions of tons, allowing spacecraft larger than 8 × 10⁶ tons to be built with 1958 materials.

Initial plans for Project Orion considered launching from Area 25 on the Nevada Test Site, commonly known as "Jackass Flats," this plan was later abandoned after modeling revealed a high level of capture which would result in the creation of artificial radiation belts. Launching from high latitudes prevents formation of artificial radiation belts because the spacecraft is bypassing the high-capture regions of the geomagnetic field. Ground launch sites would cluster at high northern latitudes in the sparsely populated region around the Arctic Ocean. The shaped charge nuclear device was designed to impart an exceptionally high velocity to the nuclear materials, such that fission fragments from each pulse unit detonation would exit the atmosphere at many, many times Earth escape velocity. With everything working as planned the fragments would depart Earth's gravitational field. Pulse units are shaped charge atomic bombs and would generate x-rays, neutrons and gamma rays so launch sites would be isolated, situated within large exclusion zones. My Reconnaissance Orion Launch Site page goes into more detail on ground launch facility design, precautions, and operations.

For more information on Nuclear Pulse Propulsion read my journal: Orion: Nuclear Pulse Propulsion.

The  Composition

Image Foreground: The Mars Entry and Descent Aero Shell of a Colonist Transport sits exposed, prior to the Launch Vehicle’s nose-cone being mounted. The actual Mars landing vehicle is nested inside the Entry vehicle's aero shell.

In the middle distance: a fully assembled, ready to launch, Orion launch vehicle towers over the construction/launch site. The vehicle is the size of a sixty story building (600’ tall by 328’ diameter) and masses 50,000 tons. [Note: before the more distant vehicle launches the foreground vehicle will be lowered into its protective construction shaft.]

Martian Settlement Plan

The challenge of Martian settlement is to soft land one million tons of freight and 1000 colonists on the surface of Mars. A payload containing the necessary equipment and stocks of seed and frozen animal ovum required to maintain yearly harvest along with the tools required to construct the infrastructure of an industrial colony, food stores to sustain the colonists for the first year and supplement natively grown crops and live stock for several years, and for long term consideration a bank of frozen ovum and sperm representing a sample of 500,000 diverse individuals to supplement the gene pool – arriving ten thousand tons at a time in individual landing craft launched via 110, single stage, earth surface-launched nuclear fission initiated pulsed plasma rockets.

The settlement project requires 110 such vehicles.

Cargo Transports

100 of these carry unmanned landing craft ferrying one million tons of freight – ten thousand tons per vehicle – to the landing target located on the planes of Syria Planum. The cargo carriers will make fuel conservative Hohmann transits to Mars – launched individually, as completed, over the span of nearly a decade.

Colonist Transports

Colonist transports go last – the spacecraft are launched when all vehicle assembly is complete. Launched one at a time, over a span of weeks. Colonist transports make a 39 day fast transfer trajectory to Mars at 125,490 fps (85,562 mph/137,700 kph).

Launch Vehicle Assembly

Vehicles are assembled in thousand foot deep vertical dry-dock shafts, pusher-plates resting on a circular barge mounted to a rail system fixed to the walls of the shaft – vehicles are raised or lowered by the expedient of flooding the shaft, bringing the level under construction to the surface. Components are readied in the surrounding Component Assembly buildings (which are temporary structures to be broken down and removed to a safe distance prior to launch). The larger elements are assembled in the open spaces between these structures. The entire operation bears much resemblance to operations in a modern day shipyard.

Launch vehicles are assembled using the very same techniques as modern day ocean going vessels: modular segments are assembled then moved into place and positioned by large mobile derrick cranes. Work crews complete the final task of securing the connections.

The Composition, Activity

Here ground crews complete final consumables loading prior to the cargo lock being sealed. The gantry platform will be pulled back for the next step – which involves positioning and securing the launch vehicle’s nose cone. Once this is completed the gantry will be positioned for one last time to permit the settlers and flight crew to board the vehicle before it is elevated into the launch position. The vista you see here represents the final view of Earth the settlers will see as they board the vehicle (sans the foreground assembly buildings and truck park – these being removed from the launch area prior to the boarding phase).

The Backstory

Image is part of a future historical setting, more detail is found on my profile page under the heading Orion’s Arm Future History, A Synopsis. A Timeline Graph is to be found here: Timeline.

The Mars settlement project began with a few visionary men, among whom a sense of endeavor sparked a bold movement to carve out a foothold for man on another world.

The intent: to establish a permanent human habitation.

For the settlers the journey is one-way – an all-in-one move to the red planet. There is no provision for continued support from Earth, nor any tie to any national government on Earth. The colonists are leaving Earth behind, severing all connections. The endeavor is entirely private.

Mars Settlement Project Complete Sequence Image Links:

Final Preparations:

Right Before


Orion Nuclear Ground Launch

Terminus of an Arc

Entry, Descent, Landing:

Propulsion Module/Entry Vehicle Separation

Piercing the Veil

Flight Control

A Sound of Thunder

Cue The Pyrotechnics

Riding The Fire

Over Noctis Labyrinthus

Terminal Descent

Post Landing:

Martian Dusk
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anonymous's avatar
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rbt0583's avatar
rbt0583Hobbyist Digital Artist
Hello, I only recently discovered your amazing gallery and have been wondering if you might have a very rough sketch of the launch facility. The most "dry-docks" i have found was here with 10 separate silos. With launches of the 100 cargo vessels lasting a decade this would leave at most 1 year for construction of each one. Im no expert but his seems very short for such massive launch vehicles; are there more dry-docks and/or does the decade only include time from first to last launch (eg. where the various elements constructed/assembled beforehand)? Thanks:) (Smile) .
QuantumInnovator's avatar
You are one imaginative and smart person. If you walk on Mars or build the equipment enabling others to do so, I would not be the least bit surprised. We need to have a permanent human presence on either Mars or the moon to guarantee survival of the human species in case a comet or asteroid destroys the Earth. Keep up the good work.
jimatkent's avatar
... great fun to see 'Orion' hardware and methodology fully visualized!
MASCH-ART's avatar
MASCH-ARTHobbyist Digital ArtistFeatured
Great concept and work, I it makes it believable.:) (Smile)
Pumais's avatar
PumaisHobbyist Digital ArtistFeatured
How I love such deeply researched art! Orion project seems amazing.
togusatravis's avatar
Is the steel plate enough protection from the radiation. Or are there other measures in place. I mean wouldn't constant detination of nuclear munitions eventually irradiate the space crafts crew and supplies? And wouldn't such a rapid launch be like shooting people out of a cannon? Its efficient, but could the inertia of the crew cause them to squash into the "floor" of the space craft from such rapid acceleration? Or is the initial speed survivable? I mean maybe I misread your description. Still it's a pretty cool concept, and it really captures the more brainy side of my imagination.I'm really sorry for all the dumb questions.
William-Black's avatar
William-BlackProfessional Digital ArtistFeatured

No need to apologize, your questions are fine, and I will answer them in order.


1. Is the steel plate enough protection from the radiation?


A: Yes. A nuclear blast is initially mostly neutrons and x-rays. The Orion pulse unit is a shaped-charge nuclear bomb wraped in a radiation case which is open on one end. The radiation case is composed of a material that is opaque to x-rays (depleted uranium). The open end thus "channels" the flood of x-rays in one direction (at least in the few milliseconds before the bomb vaporizes the radiation case). The channeled x-rays then strike "channel filler" material (beryllium oxide). This transforms the atomic fury of x-rays into an atomic fury of heat. Lying on top of the channel filler, forming the end-cap of the pulse-unit, is a disc of propellant (tungsten).


According to Freeman Dyson, theoretical physicist and mathematician, famous for his work in quantum electrodynamics, solid-state physics, astronomy and nuclear engineering, who worked on the project,  the channel filler and the propellant disc absorb neutrons and X-rays emitted by the bomb. This reduces the shielding required to protect the Orion crew.


2. Are there other (radiation shielding) measures in place?


A: The 10-meter Orion (nuclear pulse propulsion vehicles are classed by pusher plate diameter) designed for NASA (by far the smallest vehicle considered, designs went up to a theoretical maximum 2,000 foot diameter 8,000,000 ton vehicle) had the shielded crew station mounted “above” the protection of hydrogenous shielding provided by an LH₂ tank. As noted, the NASA 10-meter Orion is the smallest Orion, larger vehicles benefit from sheer mass and size – remember protection from radiation involves shielding (mass), distance (sheer size of the vehicle and the distance of the crew from the nuclear detonation), and time.


3. Would constant detonation of nuclear munitions eventually irradiate the space craft’s crew and supplies?


A: No. According to the technical report on project Orion GA-5009 vol III (PDF) neither the pusher-plate nor the spacecraft are sufficiently activated to pose risk to the crew. Direct contact with any part of the spacecraft is safe immediately after the end of nuclear pulse operation.


4. In regards to acceleration and effects on the crew, is the initial speed survivable?


A: Yes. The initial acceleration is stepped down by a two-stage shock absorber system. Acceleration is in the 1-3g range.


If you are interested in reading more about Orion, Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets site has an excellent page on Orion here.

LordOmegaZ's avatar
LordOmegaZHobbyist Artisan CrafterFeatured
just wanted to chip in, is it true there was some kind of oil that was to be pumped on to the pusher plate to ease up on the heat caused by the nukes? .w.?

ablative oil?
William-Black's avatar
William-BlackProfessional Digital ArtistFeatured
Yes it is anti-ablation oil (because it prevented albation of the plate) was to be sprayed ahead of the plate as the shock absorbers returned to the neutral position (the oil would form a cloud of vapor through which the plate would be pushed, spreading about a millimeter thin film of oil on the plate) in between every pulse-unit ejection. When the bomb detonated the plasma would vaporize the film of oil on the plate (live tests of this were done during some of the nuclear weapons tests, so there was physical testing of the effect on oil coated spheres exposed to a live nuclear weapon flash) Freeman Dyson did calculations of thermal flow effects and found it sufficient to prevent damage to the pusher plate over the course of thousands of pulse unit detonations. 
togusatravis's avatar
Dude you just blew my mind! I've always thought this stuff was more of a hypothesized technology than something given actual engineering consideration. I mean, just from reading your response, you seem to have done your homework. I had no Idea about alot of these solutions in the engineering of such a craft. And I have to thank you for all the wonderful sources of information you've given me! It is so rare that people give primary sources these days in the twitter era. I will cherish it! 
anonymous's avatar
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